They also serve

Though it controls 23.4 per cent of the country's land, the Indian Forest Service has little administrative clout. For long the stepchild of Indian officialdom, it now has also to deal with an aggressive Supreme Court seizing control of its decision-making. Is the service equipped to deal with today's challenges, ask sumana narayanan and malvika talwar

Published: Saturday 15 November 2008

They also serve

Down to Earth  
Class of 2006, Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy, Dehradun
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The real value of India's forests is too enormous to calculate, but there are estimates. 55 million people, about half the country's population, depend on forests for fuelwood, fodder, medicinal plants and other forest produce. Forests provide essential services like water, clean air, and soil conservation, which cannot be manufactured. And they do not send anybody a bill for these.

Just in the state of Himachal Pradesh, these services were valued at Rs 10,66,64 crore per year. In Madhya Pradesh, it was Rs 22,54,59 crore each year. In 2005, based on rates set by the Supreme Court of India, the net value of India's forests was estimated at Rs 5,92,01,90 crore; India's gdp at constant prices is Rs 78,23,57 crore.

All this natural wealth is managed by the Indian Forest Service (ifs) that has long argued it is underpaid and undervalued; its salary scales have been below those of the other all-India services like the administrative, police and foreign services. In August 2008, the service--India's largest landowner--got a major pay hike. Now, most senior forest officers would get paid at par with chief secretaries of the administrative service (ias). The parity is limited, though. While ias officers get regular promotions, forest officers take 18-25 years for two promotions.

Most ifs officers retire before reaching the top post of principal chief conservator of forests. They rarely get important administrative posts like secretary or chief secretary. "It is up to the Union ministry of forests and environment and the department of personnel and training to remove this disparity. The ministry controls the forest service cadre and the department makes the rules for all three services," said A N Prasad, president of the ifs association and head of Project Elephant.

This, forest officers know, is not likely to happen. "This tussle between the services is old," said A K Mukherjee, retired forest officer of Himachal cadre. "Even before 1947, the civil service [ias's precursor] baulked at the creation of a forest service. They felt they could handle forestry, too." The tension, he said, was over control, ias would not want to give away power.

Then there are officers who think little of this comparison. "ifs has been reduced to a competition with ias. Pay parity is needed but this is not the sum total of the service," said S Shyam Sunder, who joined ifs in 1953. P K Sen, who was in the first batch after the service was reconstituted in 1967, agreed "This comparison damages the functioning of the service."

ifs sorely lacks direction and focus, feel several retired foresters. They fear the service is letting decision-making slip out of its hand, concerning itself only with issues of pay and timely promotions. They are referring to the Supreme Court, which has become a big influence.

Under an omnibus forest case that began in 1996, it has passed several orders that take over the functioning of the ifs. For example, the environment and forest ministry is supposed to grant permits for use of forestland for mining; now this has to be approved by the court's Central Empowered Committee."Foresters in India became defensive consequent to the apex court taking a proactive role and criticizing, across the board, the foresters' action in managing this natural resource," said J C Kala, who in 2006 retired as director general of forests.

The court taketh away...
The service cannot be discussed today without understanding the forest case in the Supreme Court. When it began in 1996, India was rapidly losing its forests. The court intervened in several ways stopped mining in protected areas, shut down unlicensed saw mills, and brought in a large amount of land under Centre's control by expanding the definition of forests.

The impact on the service is seen variously. "The court's involvement has not curbed the forest department's powers much. In fact, it has extended its powers," said Shankar Gopalakrishnan of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, which defends forest dwelling people whose land rights have not been settled. "Earlier the department would invoke the spectre of conservation to evict people, now it is the court's orders." From this perspective, the judiciary and the executive have only strengthened each other.

Conservationists see it differently. "The court is stepping in because the service failed to do its job. [The court is] curbing some excesses being committed in the name of development, often with the connivance of a pliant forestry sector," said K Ullas Karanth, scientist with Wildlife Conservation Society in Bangalore. "Originally, the forest service had a mandate to protect forests against inroads of development". He said the court was forced to step in because the service drifted off this mission over the last one decade.

Forest officials want more autonomy. "The Supreme Court is the highest judicial authority. It should decide on legal aspects, not come down to prescribing management issues," said Shyam Sunder.

The court orders have centralized forestry. "Earlier, the states used to decide what needed to be done based on their local knowledge; now they just look to the Centre," said Prasad. Now, the states merely implement the Centre's policy--and, increasingly, the court's orders. This has brought about the fourth fundamental change in the attitude of the service in its 140 years.

Harvesters to conservators
ifs started as an imperial British setup in 1867 to manage forests for timber. A German forester, Dietrich Brandeis, became the first inspector general of forests. ifs officers view him as the noble ancestor, who married the needs of timber with conservation. V K Bahuguna, former inspecter general of forest and now on deputation to the agriculture ministry, said the forest and wildlife remaining in India is the legacy of foresters like Brandeis, who walked the length and breadth of India's forest. "Indian forestry developed on foot, developed by Brandeis and people like him," he said.

The first major change happened in 1914 when the British navy's demand for timber during the world war led to clear felling of large forests, Bahuguna said. This ushered an era of timber-centric forestry. In 1935, forestry was handed over to the provinces and the imperial forest service was discontinued. Each province--each state after the country's independence in 1947--maintained its own forest service. This changed in 1967; one hundred years after the the imperial service, the Indian Forest Service was reconstituted.

Forestry, though, remained a state subject. Foresters were responsible for policing forests and regulating felling and quarrying, as also controlling people's access to forest. Conservation was not their responsibility. This reflected in training. Karanth said foresters were oriented to turn over revenue to the government, not towards ecological protection, particularly after the 1967 centralization.

The states created forest development corporations for harvest and sale of timber and plantation of commercially valuable species like teak and conifers. The demand for a million railway sleepers each year drove the timber extraction.

The next change came in the 1970s, when the focus shifted to conservation. The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 started a process that culminated in the 1980 Forest Conservation Act. ifs was confronted with conservation, for which it had little training. Five years later, a ministry of environment and forests was created, further centralizing forestry.

The National Forest Policy 1988 identified viewing forests as revenue earning resources as one reason for forest depletion. Logging operations started declining, and when the court took on the forest case in 1996, things changed drastically. The impact on forest development corporations was sharp, said M K Sharma, former director general of forests. "Their purpose was to bring in revenue for the department. Now that timber is no longer an option, there has been no investment in the corporations," he said, adding that they need funds to develop non-timber forest produce like medicinal plants to bring in revenue.

A service built on policing has to handle programmes like Joint Forest Management, which go against all that it was taught till recently. The service is ill-equipped to face challenges of the times.

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